/ 21 February 2007

UK to announce start of troop exit from Iraq

Prime Minister Tony Blair will on Wednesday announce a timetable for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq just as thousands of additional United States troops are arriving there to try to restore order in Baghdad.

Blair, whose popularity at home has suffered greatly because of his participation in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, will make his announcement on the troop pull-out to Parliament in the afternoon, a government source said.

He said Blair would say Britain’s 7 100-strong Iraq force would fall to 5 500 by the end of the year. The Defence Ministry was expected to flesh out the details on Thursday.

Media reports said the first British troops could leave Iraq in the middle of this year. Sky News television said the government wanted to have all troops out of Iraq by May 2008.

Denmark was also expected to announce plans to cut its Iraq troop commitment on Wednesday but Australia ruled out bringing its soldiers home for now.

US President George Bush has ordered a ”surge” of 21 500 extra troops to Iraq where US forces now number more than 140 000. Vice-President Dick Cheney said the US wanted to finish its mission in Iraq and ”return with honour”.

Blair, who is due to step down later this year, was expected to say the British withdrawal reflected its success in southern Iraq, where command of the main Iraqi army unit in Basra was handed over to Iraqis on Tuesday.

Since the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, British troops have been responsible for Iraq’s southern-most four provinces, which are mainly Shi’ite and have been quieter than mixed or mainly Sunni areas patrolled by Americans.

Bush, who spoke to Blair on Tuesday, was upbeat about the British plans and hoped US forces could follow suit when conditions allowed, the White House said.

Bomb kills 11 in Najaf

”President Bush sees this as a sign of success and what is possible for us once we help the Iraqis deal with the sectarian violence in Baghdad,” Gordon Johndroe, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said.

Cheney, on a visit to Japan, said Washington would not back ”a policy of retreat” despite growing calls at home for a pull-out from Iraq, where more than 3 000 US and over 100 British soldiers have been killed.

”We know that if we leave Iraq before the mission is completed, the enemy is going to come after us. And I want you to know that the American people will not support a policy of retreat,” Cheney said.

”We want to complete the mission, we want to get it done right, and we want to return with honour,” he said aboard USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier at Yokosuka Navy Base near Tokyo.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen will announce plans to start drawing down Denmark’s roughly 470 troops in Iraq on Wednesday, the Danish news agency Ritzau said.

But Prime Minister John Howard ruled out reducing Australia’s 1 400-strong force in and around Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has called the US-backed security crackdown in Baghdad, which started last week, a ”brilliant success”, but a spate of car bombs that have killed scores has tempered early optimism.

A car bomb exploded at a police checkpoint near a busy market in the holy Shi’ite city of Najaf on Wednesday, killing 11 people, a doctor at a local hospital said.

Blair said on Sunday that Britain would cut its force once Iraqis were responsible for security in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city and key centre for oil exports.

The British handed over security responsibility for two of their four provinces to Iraqis last year and abandoned their main base in a third. — Reuters